Childhood Sexual Abuse Healing – Emotional Regulation & Practices
Written by: Victoria Kong, Previous Placement Student, The Gatehouse
Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) can have a wide range of effects in adulthood. Research shows that survivors of childhood sexual abuse can have serious and long-term impacts on their physical and mental health, along with their following sexual adjustment. It is notable that the experience of CSA and the negative emotional impacts can result in damaging a victim’s emotional reactions and self-perceptions.
Under these circumstances, survivors of childhood sexual abuse may experience issues with trust. Affecting an individual’s ability to trust others or to perceive the world as being safe. Possible emotional impacts could include feelings of guilt and shame. In effect, assigning self-blame of which a victim may blame themselves or feel that the abuse was their fault.
Furthermore, CSA survivors can experience low self-esteem, are prone to feelings of anger, and may find themselves engaging in dissociation in which a victim may disconnect from one’s own thoughts, feelings and memories. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may also act impulsively and are more likely to self-harm and engage in negative coping strategies (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2013).
It is important to provide the support for CSA survivors to address these negative thoughts and painful emotions that come from the trauma of the abuse. Discouraging negative coping strategies and instead work towards developing positive coping mechanisms, establish healthy boundaries in relationships, and to build trust.
Developing emotional regulation skills is important in healing from CSA. “Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion producing process.” (Gross, 1998, p. 275)
Emotional regulation skills and techniques allow CSA survivors to engage in modulating responses triggered by emotions. The ability to manage, modify and utilize emotions in a way that is beneficial. Every day we experience both positive and negative feelings aroused by the environmental stimuli around us which could require a response or an action. Henceforth, emotional regulation involves (Chowdhury, 2022):
- Initiating actions trigged by emotions
- Inhibiting actions triggered by emotions
- Modulating responses triggered by emotions
Emotion regulation skills can be taught and improved over time with practice. Some of the skills that we can learn to self-regulate our emotions are (Klynn, 2021):
- Create a space – give yourself time between what elicits an emotion (a trigger) and the response (an action triggered).
- Emotional Awareness – to notice how and what you are feeling. An example would be to realize the physical reactions you may experience. What body parts are you experiencing sensation in?
- Naming what you feel – to be able to name what you feel allows individuals to have some control. Ask yourself what you’d call the emotion that you’re feeling. Are you feeling sadness, anger, or disappointment? What other emotions are could you be feeling? A strong emotion that often is hidden behind others is fear.
- Accepting the emotion – realize that your feelings are valid and that emotions are normal and is a natural way of how we respond to the environment.
- Practice mindfulness – mindful awareness. Live in the moment and utilize your senses to see what is happening around you in non-judgemental ways.
Furthermore, there are emotion regulation practices that help manage our emotions and contribute to building positive coping skills (Klynn, 2021):
- Identify and reduce triggers – look for factors, situations, and or patterns that arouse strong feelings.
- Being in tune with physical symptoms – bring attention and awareness to how you’re feeling. How you feel physically could influence how you feel emotionally. Which could possibly affect how you may perceive your own emotions (e.g. if you’re hungry).
- Consider the story you are telling yourself – utilize cognitive reappraisal. With absence of information, we provide our own attributions and fill in the blanks. Practices such as thought replacement or situational role reversal provides new and different perspectives (eg. replace thoughts of “My co-worker just ignored me” with “My co-worker might not have heard me because she/he was busy”). Which provides a wider perspective and allows individuals to react positively.
- Positive self-talk – find or speak words of positive affirmation.
- Practice Mindfulness – stepping back and observing the situation, not judging what is coming up for you, simply observe. Focus on breath. Make choice with how to respond to the situation in a way that will be helpful to you.
Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Mental Health Issue. https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/childhood-sexual-abuse-a-mental-health-issue-2/#who
Chowdhury, M. (2022, March 23). What is Emotional Regulation? + 6 emotional Skills and Strategies. PositivePsychology. https://positivepsychology.com/emotion-regulation/
Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299.
Klynn, B. (2021, June 22). Emotional Regulation: Skills, Exercises, and Strategies. BetterUp. https://www.betterup.com/blog/emotional-regulation-skills